Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 27, 2012

Sake from Iwate Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Iwate, the largest prefecture in North-eastern Honshu (and the second largest in Japan after Hokkaido), has interesting crafts and folklore and in Hiraizumi also boasts the ruins of an ancient cultural capital. It has great scenery and its unspoiled nature provides excellent water. But it is not a large rice-growing prefecture, the main sake rice being Miyama Nishiki which was originally developed in Nagano (Iwate's own sake rice also exists and is called "Ginginga").

Although Iwate has a respectable number of sake breweries (22 in 2015), these are far outnumbered by the large number of toji or master brewers. The well-organized Nambu toji ("Nambu" is the old name for Iwate) form the largest group of toji in the whole of Japan. If you wonder how that is possible, well, people from poorer areas in northern Japan were accustomed to leave their villages and find work elsewhere. That is why you find the Nambu toji everywhere in Japan, with the highest concentration in the north and east. The Nambu style is light and crisp, technically the Nambu toji are among the best in the country. They also excel in the ginjo style. There are more than 300 Nambu toji.

Iwate breweries win regularly prizes at the National Sake Competition and their ginjo style has been fortified by the development of the Iwate No. 2 Yeast. The Iwate style is like the Nambu style (naturally, as the toji guilds are the major influence on local styles), light and mild. Main brewing areas are at the same time the areas where the Nambu toji hail from, such as Shiwamachi and Ishidoriyamachi just south of the capital Morioka. In that last village, the Nambu Toji headquarters is located. Visitors can also enjoy seeing the Nambu toji museum called "Nambu Toji Denshokan" in Hanamaki.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Asabiraki (Asabiraki Co., Ltd., Morioka). Founded 1871. ”Asabiraki" is used in the Manyoshu for a "ship leaving port at dawn." The name was selected symbolically by Murai Genzo, a samurai of the Nanbu clan who in the early Meiji Period set out on the new endeavor of sake brewing. Largest producer in Iwate with computer-controlled new Kura (besides a traditional one for handmade sake). Emphasis on junmai. Also experiments, such as sake with grape juice. Brewery visits welcome (10 min by taxi or bus from Morioka Station. Also runs a restaurant, "Stella Monte," where micro-brew beer is available.
  • Hamachidori (Hamachidori Co., Ltd., Kamaishi). Small brewery founded in 1923 in steel town Kamaishi. The name means "plover", fitting a company on the Rikuchu Coast. Uses the local sake rice Ginginga. Besides water from its own well, also uses water from a well in the old iron ore mine (sake made with this water is branded as Sennengo).
  • Nanbu Bijin (Nanbu-Bijin Co., Ltd., Ninohe; English website). Set up in 1902 in Ninohe, in the northern part of Iwate, a historical town also famous for its Joboji lacquerware. The name means "Beautiful Woman of Nanbu" and was selected in the 1950s because the company wanted to promote the clean and beautiful taste of its sake. Probably the best known brand from Iwate. Also makes All Koji sake, where instead of the usual (about) 20%, 100% of the rice used is koji rice. This results in a velvety sweet brew. From November to March brewery visits are possible, but advance reservation is necessary. 
  • Shichifukujin and Kikunotsukasa (Kiku no Tsukasa Co., Ltd., Morioka & Ishidoriyamachi). ”Shichifukujin" are the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, a group that became popular in folklore in the Edo-period. The same company also makes the brand Kikunotsukasa (at another location). Originally set up as sake brewery in 1772 by the Hirai family, founded as modern company in 1929. "Daiginjo Tezukuri Shichifukujin" is a long selling sake that helped develop the market for ginjo sake in the past. Uses local Sasanishiki rice. Also brews a few sakes with Kame-no-o rice.
  • Tsuki no Wa (Tsukinowa Shuzoten, Shiwa Town). Founded 1886 by the Yokozawa family. "Full Moon" (named after a moon-shaped island in a local pond with historical connotations). Small brewery with lovely buildings. Uses local organic rice and Iwate No. 2 Yeast. All sake is hand work. Has an ice cream garden where it sells ice made from rice, koji and milk. The owners used to act as toji (now the daughter of the owner).
Iwate Prefecture Sake Brewers Association

When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.